The Sandwich King: The Early Years of Subway’s Fred DeLuca

Fred DeLuca was nothing more than a kid from “The Projects”, looking for a way to pay his college tuition when he opened up a sandwich store in Bridgeport, Connecticut. At the time, he could not even afford the $25 lawyer’s fee he needed to sign the lease. That was back in 1956. Today, his store has blossomed into the third largest fast food chain in the world. Subway remains one of the largest global privately held companies and earns revenues in excess of $9.5 billion.

Frederick A. DeLuca was born in 1948 in Brooklyn, New York to second-generation Italian immigrant parents. Almost immediately, his parents began to notice an entrepreneurial spirit in their young son. By the age of 10, he had already earned his own money by cashing in empty bottles he found lying in the housing project where he and his family were living. He only received two cents per bottle, but it was a start. After moving to Schenectady, New York in 1957 he began a paper route that would eventually serve more than 400 customers.

DeLuca’s family made its third move to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he graduated from Central High School. His goal was to study medicine at Bridgeport University and become a doctor, but money left him short of achieving that dream. DeLuca took up a job at a hardware store to help pay for his tuition, but still, he found his $1.25 minimum wage was not enough.

That is when the family received a phone call from Dr. Pete Buck, a long-time friend who had just switched jobs and moved closer into town. Buck wanted to meet up once again with the DeLuca’s. It was on one Sunday afternoon in July 1965 that DeLuca and Buck began talking.

“Where our families had met in upstate New York, there was a small chain called Mike’s,” recalls DeLuca. “The day we talked, he pulled out a little newspaper clipping about Mike Davis, the guy behind Mike’s. He started with nothing, and after 10 years, he owned 32 stores.”

After a brief discussion, Buck suggested to DeLuca that he open up a sandwich restaurant in order to earn enough money to pay for his tuition. DeLuca found it to be an odd suggestion, but he was nevertheless intrigued. “How does it work?” he asked.

Buck went on to explain the ins and outs of the submarine sandwich business. He told DeLuca all he needed to do was rent a small store, build a counter, buy the food, and open up shop. It was a simple operation, so they thought, and one Buck would be willing to finance if DeLuca wanted to take it on. Before his family left that day, Buck would write DeLuca a check for $1,000.

That was on Sunday. On Monday, DeLuca was already out looking for a vacant space to rent. He was eager to get started on this latest venture, albeit completely unaware of what was in store for him down the road.

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